Saturday begins and ends inside the Orange Vélodrome, also known as the Stade Vélodrome, which, with not a small amount of irony, is no longer a velodrome.
In a further twist, it was at the behest of businessman Bernard Tapie; one-time owner of health food chain La Vie Claire, and he who created the eponymous and highly successful cycling team, winning the 1985 and ‘86 Tours de France with Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, respectively. The permanent removal of the cycling track in 1985 coincided with Tapie’s appointment as president of French first division football club Olympique de Marseille - and so it went from a multi-use facility to one only for games of the round ball.
It’s been exactly three weeks since the 14 kilometre individual time trial around Düsseldorf kicked off Le Tour for 2017 and Geraint Thomas donned the first maillot jaune. Besides a change of leadership, a few things have happened since...
Thomas, lying second overall at the time, crashed out on the ninth stage to Chambéry; his second consecutive premature departure from a Grand Tour. Two GC leaders, Alejandro Valverde and Richie Porte, also did not make it thus far, the former not even lasting 10 kilometres and the latter leaving the same day as Thomas. As did two big-name sprinters in Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel, with a third (Peter Sagan) DQ’d for an elbow that did not connect. Lilian Calmejane, winner of Stage 8, is looking a worthy heir apparent to his hero Thomas Voeckler. And polka-dot maillot Warren Barguil not just looks a worthy heir apparent to seven-time King of the Mountains winner Richard Virenque, but even looks like him.
Is le maillot jaune set in stone? Before the race began Tour boss Christian Prudhomme and his sidekick, course designer Thierry Gouvenou, hoped there would be the possibility; indeed, with the virtual podium separated by half a minute, the possibility exists.
But to suggest a change of leadership is likely in this half-hour contre-la-montre would be a bridge too far. Aside from an off-day to Peyragudes and overshooting a corner, maillot jaune Chris Froome’s Grande Boucle has been blemish-free; on paper, of the last three riders to leave the start gate in Marseille this afternoon, he is the strongest against the clock. Realistically, only a fall or botched wheel change would see yellow changing shoulders. "Certainly, at this point, it's my race to lose," Froome said Friday in Salon-de-Provence.
"I have to make sure I do everything right, follow the right processes and hopefully not have a bad day. I've got the legs, and hopefully, everything else will be all right."
The same could be said for Romain Bardet and Rigoberto Uran, 23 and 29 seconds off the lead, who, if we’re to be honest, are more racing each other than Froome. On this 22 kilometre-long fast, mostly flat out-and-back course (save for a small climb on the return leg, which serves as the second checkpoint before the finish) it’s expected the Colombian will overtake the whippet-thin Bardet on GC, because as the maillot jaune himself noted, “It's quite a power time trial.” And if Romain really cracks then Froome’s team-mate Mikel Landa, 1’36 behind his leader, could leapfrog the Frenchman and thus see a repeat of 2012, when two Team Sky riders made the final podium. But that’s a big ‘if’...
More than likely, Saturday will provide affirmation of what we already know.
In fact, what is generally most-looked forward to is the Tour winner’s final press conference, which for years has been traditionally held on the penultimate day of the race. Expect the Kenyan-born Brit to tell all and sundry he will not stop at four, or even five, victories in La Grande Boucle; expect him to tell you that he wants to create a history all of his own.
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says:
“For the very first time, Marseille will welcome an individual time trial. A final opportunity to witness a change in the hierarchy, and why not see le maillot jaune switch shoulders? Set entirely on urban roads with a passage on the Corniche and by the Vieux-Port (old harbour), the course will be rather flat except for a climb up to the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde cathedral. The start and finish will take place inside the legendary Vélodrome football stadium, recently renamed Orange.”
Finish line: Orange Vélodrome. Width: 5m
Weather: 29°C and mostly sunny at start, 0% precipitation, 58% humidity, wind 13km/h SSW; 28°C and mostly sunny at finish, 0% precipitation, 60% humidity, wind 13km/h SSW.